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Design Profile: Mehemed Fehmy Agha and the spread

Early spread from Vanity Fair

The American image that was so inviting to immigrants in the early 1900s came not only from American cinema, but also from the pages of popular magazines and their advertisements, quickly giving rise to the role of art director. In contrast to Europe where the designer was the authority on advertising, the art director became the author of American commercialism and actually preceded the profession of graphic design in the states, a profession that was cemented when the Art Directors Club of New York was founded in 1920. And while Europe admired the image of America, America also looked to Europe to determine trends in modernity, sophistication, and culture, going so far as to recruit European talent as the next great American art director.

In 1929 Condé Nast (the man himself) brought Russian-born Mehemed Fehmy Agha, who had been working for the German edition of Vogue magazine, to America as art director for House & Garden, Vanity Fair, and the senior edition of Vogue. Considered avant-garde at the time, Agha introduced sans-serif typefaces, the practice of bleeding photos off the page, and the use of duotone images (black-and-white photos printed in two colors) followed by the first full-color photograph to grace Vogue magazine in 1932. But more importantly, he was the first advertising mind to view publications as a series of spreads, or what we tend to redundantly refer to as “double page spreads,” instead of a series of individual pages.

Agha would often plan out the design of editorial content before any photographs were taken, and at a time when magazine covers were strictly illustrated, with art directors often working with cartoonists or painters, he introduced entirely pictorial covers. His knowledge of photography—he often photographed images himself for his publications—brought multiple dimensions to his art directorial role and produced a higher-level of sophistication in the content of his magazines.

Agha later spent time as president of both the Art Directors Club (1935) and AIGA (1953-55). It was his use of full-color photographic covers for his publications that many identify him as the first modern art director in America, but in my opinion it was the revelation that combining type and photographs in a cohesive way to link adjacent pages of a feature into a spread proved his greatest contribution to design. Agha redefined the way a page works with this single idea, and it’s hard to imagine publication design of any kind that is unconscious of the spread.

Through my personal experience working for a magazine, most designers dread designing for editorial content that doesn’t begin on a left-hand page. In fact, we recently redesigned our publication, Illinois State, to be more conscious of spread design and open to more design freedom by condensing the amount of editorial content. To us, a designer’s dream. One year post-redesign, please enjoy a selection of double page editorial spreads from Illinois State in honor of Mehemed Fehmy Agha.


Mr. Brainwash StencilI completed the following essay in December 2010, shortly after the theatrical release of Banksy’s documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, and decided to post it for two reasons. The first of which is that I was really happy with the way this paper turned out and wanted to preserve it. The second is the fact that, even a year later and amidst all of the controversy that came to light after the release of this film, I’m still mesmerized by Thierry Guetta, A.K.A. “Mr. Brainwash.” A lot of people think that, and still believe, this guy was just a puppet for the film—a fact I didn’t really pursue in my paper—but he’s still out there working and selling a lot of work. In fact, he just opened his third solo exhibition earlier this month at the Opera Gallery in London, and there were plenty of protesters. Enjoy:

How MBW copied the success patterns of art’s biggest stars to become the newest art icon

“A question that many young artists ask is, ‘How are artist’s discovered?’ But the fact is, artists discover their own audiences and peers” (Grant 61).

Who is Mr. Brainwash? The french-born, Los Angeles-based figure Thierry Guetta has been called naïve, a copycat, and even a hoax. But an artist? His pieces, reminiscent of familiar Pop art images infused with street art themes, took the art world by storm and quickly became a hot item at the market–with pieces selling for as much as $300,000–regardless of any real credibility. Beginning as (or at least attempting to be) a documentary filmmaker working closely with street artists around the world made him fall in love with the movement. Over time, and with some self-inflated encouragement from art star Banksy, he dubbed himself Mr. Brainwash (or MBW for short) and became intent on making his pseudonym famous. His debut, 2008’s Life is Beautiful, was a massive undertaking that undoubtedly made him a star.

Through sheer determination, plus the right connections and a lot of ingenuity, Mr. Brainwash was able to explode into the world of not only street art, but mainstream gallery art, with little to no experience or name recognition. At first, his sheer star power led some critics to coin him the next Andy Warhol. Following Life is Beautiful MBW was commissioned to create the cover for Madonna’s greatest hits collection, along with the art for accompanying DVDs and singles, and in 2010 was the subject of the Sundance hit documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. But MBW’s portrayal in the documentary kept a majority of the art world away from his second show, Icons: Part One. Just as fast as MBW became a star, many critics began to recognize his “talent” for nothing more than successful exploitation. Jonathan Levine, owner of a New York gallery and graffiti scene insider, has called MBW’s work “all completely derivative of Shepard [Fairey] and Banksy” (Jackson and Schuker). As MBW’s career unfolds it is becoming clear that the unfavorable comparison to these two artists, as well as his early recognition as Warhol-esque, has to do with artistic talent and everything to do with artistic admiration.

This essay will explore the phenomenon and air of success Guetta was able to create around himself by blatantly copying the success patterns of other artists; namely Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and Andy Warhol; who epitomize the niche mold of postmodern celebrity artists “who perform beyond their own art” (Celis). Or, in the case of MBW, beyond one’s own artistic capabilities.

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On the state of graphic design education

There is a major disconnect between the life of a design student and the transition to being a design professional

As a supplement to my graduate school experience, I’ll be entering the classroom in the spring, for the first time, in a part-time teaching role. To prepare for this experience I took some time to research and reflect on the state of graphic design education as follows.

After a few years experience working with graphic design students in a professional setting, primarily through internships, it’s become clear to me that traditional graphic design programs are not properly preparing students to enter the workforce. The vast majority of graphic design programs, regardless of location, are in concept vocational training programs—a contemporary model that was inspired primarily by the Bauhaus, which also stressed intuitive solutions to design problems—in which it is essential that upon completion of training one would posses the proper technical skills to succeed in the design profession. And by technical skills, for the sake of this post, I’m referring to a depth of knowledge about the suite of software that print designers rely on, primarily Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. In addition, knowledge and understanding outside the field of graphic design is becoming more essential to a design student’s education as well.

Design programs often stress creativity and creative problem solving skills over teaching students the proper way to go about creating the solution once that problem is solved. Now, I understand that graphic design professors are paid to teach creativity, typography, theory, etc., and not software—an entire semester could be spent teaching Photoshop alone—but something has to change. The addition of regular software training courses to the curriculum, or the requirement that students spend extra lab time with online training resources, would be a start, but likely not the best solution.

For example: At my office we interview 4-5 graphic design students each year for potential internships, and our first question to candidates is typically “Do you know how to use InDesign?” We rarely receive a “yes” in response, and if we do it’s likely to be a reluctant answer. With a vast majority of the graphic design business still focusing on print, mastery of the page layout software is essential. More times than I can count an intern has turned in a text-heavy page layout for a flier or poster and I’ve commented, “it looks good, now recreate it in InDesign.” But the student can’t be blamed as often their professors are instructing them to use whatever software they prefer to work with, with more concern on the student’s creative process and not their technique, and page layout software isn’t likely to be the most appealing option to a student unfamiliar with the program.

Students take typography classes and learn the history of mechanical type and create beautiful and creative typography projects, but they don’t know how to kern letterspaces, or set indents without using the Tab key, or the difference between a typeface and a font. The first two of the aforementioned issues are prime examples of basic software knowledge that designer’s must have. They create posters that incorporate their own photography, but don’t learn how to color correct photos for printing. They learn what CMYK stands for, but aren’t taught why the color separation exists and have likely never seen a printing press at work. But again, this is not the student’s fault, it is merely an issue with the state of graphic design education, and it’s not the only problem.

Graphic design is an art that is based on the foundations of visual communication, and as designers we are becoming more responsible for interpreting cultural, historical, and societal messages into our work. Knowledge in multiple disciplines is becoming necessary for a designer to successfully achieve higher levels of function in message communication. The past couple decades have witnessed a rise in the academic field of Visual Culture and emphasis on multidisciplinary education, but the relevancy of these disciplines has yet to be incorporated into most graphic design curriculum.

A broader view of knowledge outside the realm of graphic design is just as important to a student’s education as creativity and software training. In fact, it is a supplement to the creative process. If multidisciplinary strategies are not encouraged or fostered in the design classroom, students often fail to see how they can apply knowledge gained from their outside courses into their design work. As a result, students often don’t understand when they are communicating incorrect messages or how their product fits into the larger context of society, often resulting in an inappropriate visual narrative. Graphic design students often enter the workforce with little other than a portfolio full of student work, and this missing level of understanding in both the product message and non-understanding of how to discuss their work can lead to lost job opportunities or failure to meet or communicate client needs.

In Teaching Graphic Design, Steven Heller proposes that graphic design programs should be designed to give students the tools they need to “decipher the various and often conflicting trends in our culture, and understand how they impact the way we think about design,” stressing that historical, social, economic, and political issues are all an integral part of the design practice. However, few of these themes seem to be at the forefront of most undergraduate graphic design programs.

Graphic design began as a trade activity, closely connected to the emergence of mass communication, and therefore this is the way that most design education is viewed. Further adding to this misconception is the public view on our “trade.” The abundance of software available to the public for designing layouts has caused an “anyone can do it” attitude towards our field to those uneducated in graphic design, and has spawned what my coworkers and I like to refer to as “Piano Mover Syndrome” in a number of clients. “Lets try it over here. Now let’s see what it looks like over here?” A solid education that prepares designers to enter the workforce with not only technical knowledge, but confidence and expertise in their craft, is necessary to convince clients that we are more than mere desktop publishers, but instead authorities in our field. Like any other trade, we must strive to become well-rounded experts at our craft.

To competently communicate in the changing society, designers will need to be equipped with much more than the technical skills that institutions are providing. In the words of design author Rick Poynor, what graphic design educations need now more than ever “is to establish new grounds for making assessments of effectiveness and value.” In an essay from Looking Closer 2: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, Blauvelt and Davis assert that the changing climate of design requires expertise outside the design field; a multitude of knowledge that is absent from current day graphic design classrooms. They argue that this knowledge can only be gained through means outside of the design discipline. And several more scholars are in favor of the multidisciplinary graphic design education, particularly a liberal arts graphic design model.

Design scholar Richard Buchanan argues that, while basic, technical skills are still necessary, we must supplement these skills with other elements of learning that contribute to the formation of a liberally educated professional graphic designer. To accomplish this, Buchanan believes educators need to more consciously seek the advice of practicing professional graphic designers regarding what should be taught in the classroom. Instead of following the old model of design education, new conditions of practice must be anticipated and instructed in the classroom. According to Buchanan, when properly studied and understood, “design provides a powerful connective link with many bodies of knowledge. Design integrates knowledge from many other disciplines and makes that knowledge effective in practical life.”

Many institutions pride themselves on the availability of diverse course selections and requirements that students take, with little encouragement from graphic design programs to incorporate this outside knowledge in the design process. As the world becomes more diverse, design education will need to address these methods of integration. Connecting subjects and people across disciplines will be necessary in working toward a liberal arts formula for design education in the future, as long as educators can find ways to supplement technical skills training as well. It’s a tricky, but necessary road that graphic design education must take to enhance our working professionals.

Additional links
Steven Heller books